Why Your Friends Are Probably Lying To Themselves About What They’re Good At, And How To Work Around It

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 8.442% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I had a friend who was extremely loyal. They didn’t abandon their friends when their buddies in trouble – they buckled down, and found a way to help.

This was, of course, a trait they were extremely proud of.

It was, of course, also not entirely true.

It turns out they were very loyal to the people they could help. If there was someone who needed some cash, they’d scrape up some cash. If there was someone going through a short-term illness, they’d show up with hot dishes and pillows. If they had a wheelchair-enabled friend who needed help getting around, their car was at their service.

They weren’t so good with problems that didn’t have easy fixes.

People who relied on them to help with their chronic depression? Well, all the happy talks in the world couldn’t help what was, fundamentally, an issue of miswired brain chemistry. Folks with chronic illnesses of no clear fix, where one day they’d be walking fine and the next they’d be laid up in bed? That was frustrating for my friend, because they couldn’t do anything.

Slowly but surely, they distanced themselves from anyone who had problems they couldn’t fix. Which is not a bad thing! We all have limited energy, and it’s not wrong to say “Hey, I’m sorry you’re constantly seized by social anxiety, but I don’t have the strength to reassure you through every freakout.”

But here’s the problem:

They didn’t update their self-definition to say, “I’m extremely loyal to people who have problems I can solve.”

So while they were, on the whole, really good people, they quietly left behind a sad trail of folks who’d been sold a bill of goods that didn’t quite work out. Because they defined themselves as “loyal,” they told everyone they were new friends with, “Don’t worry – I’m loyal as fuck. I’ll stick with you through thick and thin.”

These folks trusted that definition.

And were hurt to realize that this definition of loyalty wasn’t true for them.

And because my friend’s self-definition was “I’m loyal!”, a strange alchemy happened in their mind:

The people they weren’t loyal to quietly evaporated from their memory.

They’d either engineer good reasons why these people weren’t worthy of their loyalty – “Eh, they don’t want to change” – or they’d quietly ghost out and pretend they’d never been close with the unfixable people in the first place.

They thought of themselves as loyal. They’d stress that undying loyalty as one of the main benefits of being friends with them, yet whenever something conflicted with that definition, they’d rationalize that exception away.

Which is not at all unusual.

Most people have one or two core positive things they’ve built their ego around. “I’m not good at everything, but I’m good at this!” And when they’re confronted with proof that they’re not good at that, they’ll sweep it under the rug because honestly, sometimes untrammeled positivity is the only way you get through a hard day.

But it does mean you have to watch out for the things that people promise you they’ll do for you, because while those are often genuine strengths you can still get crushed beneath someone’s weak spot.

If someone tells you, “I’m empathic, I’m always aware of other people’s pain,” they might be so caught up in trying to fix someone else’s drama that they completely ignore the pain they’re inadvertently inflicting by taking their attention away from the people they love.

If someone tells you, “I’ll always listen to what you have to say,” they may be completely oblivious to all the times they quote-unquote “listened” but then shrugged someone’s complaints off as ridiculous.

If someone tells you, “I’m good at negotiating BDSM scenes,” they may have found ways to blame the other person for all the scenes gone wrong.

And when I told my poor girlfriends “I am really open and honest, so you’ll never have to worry” back when I was 25, I was blatantly ignoring all the evidence that being effectively open and honest required a self-awareness that I was not at all capable of. Years later, I can see that but holy God did I not fathom that “telling them everything I understand about me” was not even close to giving them “everything they needed to know.”

Point is: recognizing when someone’s trying to sell you on a belief that they require to stay functional is a part of creating healthy relationships.

Because I did not wind up hurt by my friend. As a depressive, I’ve learned all too often that people self-define as “I’m compassionate,” and they get upset whenever you imply they might not want to hear about your never-ending, reason-free trauma.

Years of experience has taught me that until I get better evidence, someone saying “I want to know everything about my friends” actually means “I’ll listen to you bitch if you’ve got a good reason for it, but mostly I just wanna hang out and make bad puns.”

Which is totally doable! Most of the time, the problem comes from a bad self-definition – if my friend had said, “I’m really loyal, but I’m not good at handling chronic depression, so talk to me only when it’s like emergency-level stuff,” then my other friends would have been fine. If my 25 year old self had been able to say, “I’m really open and honest, but I’m still learning a lot about myself, so the information I give you may be of limited use,” I suspect far fewer hearts – including mine! – would have been broken.

But that’s the lesson: when someone builds their ego around a portion of their personality, they’re often really bad at spotting their own weak spots. And because these traits are the few constants in their life, the handful of things they can unequivocally point to as the reasons people love them, they’ll just forget those problems existed.

Alas, it’s your job to spot them. And if you can get better at homing in on, “This person values this about themselves a lot, so perhaps I should check around to see whether they’re as good at this as they claim,” then you’ll build friendships that are actually designed to bear the weight they need to.

Because when you play to someone’s actual strengths, you get a strong friendship. Who knew?


  1. Anonymous Alex
    Aug 31, 2018

    I’m just wondering if this is limited to one’s core self-image, or if one ought to doubt everything one thinks about oneself.

    • Anonymous Alex
      Aug 31, 2018

      Dammit; forgot to sign.


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